Earlier in the season, Mark Sanchez had been Mr. Clutch.
In three consecutive games, Weeks 9-11, Sanchez had led the Jets down the field at the end of the game, either in regulation or OT, to put them in position to win. Making plays in and out of the pocket, with throws short and deep down the field, Sanchez had shown the skills that had made him such a prized prospect in the 2009 NFL draft during the stretch in November.
Yet with the Jets trailing 16-14 with 50 seconds remaining in Saturday's wild-card playoff game at Inianapolis and the Colts kicking off, the odds were not on Sanchez's side to pull off a victory. The QB hadn't played particularly well during the game's first 59 minutes, being more of a caretaker than a downfield threat. He was facing an opposing defense that was going to attack him with two Pro Bowl defensive ends and had a pair of receivers that, while having big-play reputations, had done little to live up to that claim since the three-game streak a month and a half before.
To the QB's credit, and the Jets' delight, Mr. Clutch returned. Following a great kickoff return by Antonio Cromartie to the Jets' 47-yard line, Sanchez completed three passes to his big-play targets — two to Braylon Edwards and one to Santonio Holmes — setting up Nick Folk for a game-winning 32-yard field goal as time expired, giving the Jets a 17-16 win. The Jets advance to face their AFC East rivals, the Patriots, on Sunday in the divisional round.
The PFW Spin
While Sanchez deserves praise for his great composure and playmaking ability at the end of the game, it was the five guys in front of him and the two men lining up behind him that gave the QB the chance to pull out the victory at the end. The Jets were determined to run the ball, work the clock and keep Peyton Manning watching on the sideline over the game's final 30 minutes. The strategy worked, so much so that the team would be wise to consider trying it again this weekend.
In the first half against the Colts, the Jets dropped back to pass 20 times (with nine completions for 84 yards and one sack) compared to only 13 rushes (for 74 yards). Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer clearly wanted to establish Sanchez early and get him in a rhythm, but that tactic wasn't doing much — a reason why New York trailed 7-0 at halftime. Time of possession was favoring the Jets at that point — by a mere 14 seconds. Manning had completed 10-of-13 first-half throws, but outside of the 57-yard bomb to Pierre Garcon, none of his passes were really stretching the defense. It was apparent that with just a little offensive boost, the Jets had a chance to pull out a victory.
Schottenheimer wised up following halftime. Instead of quick throws, the coach gave the ball to RBs LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene, had them follow the team's massive offensive line and told Sanchez to get out of the way. New York matched its first-half rushing output in the third quarter alone, rushing 13 times and controlling the ball for nearly a little more than 10 of the period's 15 minutes. Tomlinson ran for a one-yard score to put the Jets on the scoreboard at the start of the quarter, and duplicated that feat at the beginning of the fourth, giving the Jets a four-point lead with 10 minutes left in the game.
Of course, Manning retaliated with a pair of drives resulting in field goals in the fourth, requiring Sanchez and Folk to perform their late-game heroics. The Jets survived with a one-point win, thanks as much to their runners' legs as the QB's arm or kicker's foot.
"Shonn and I knew it was going to come down to a game like this," Tomlinson said to the New York Times following the win. "The run game was going to have to take control of the game."
Facing the Patriots on Sunday, Schottenheimer could do a lot worse than duplicate his second-half approach. Tomlinson is a seasoned vet who still maintains the quickness and agility to make plays in the open field. Greene is only in his second year and is the type of runner who improves as the game progresses. Those two, along with "Wildcat" QB Brad Smith, give the coordinator plenty of options in ways to gain yards and keep Tom Brady as a spectator. And if the game comes down to the end, where a big play needs to be made through the air, the Jets still know they can rely on Mr. Clutch.